Home / Chroniques / Myths and facts about hypersensitivity
Dizziness a term used to describe a range of sensations, such as feeling faint, woozy, weak or unsteady. that creates the false sense that you or your surroundings are spinning or moving
π Science and technology π Society π Neuroscience

Myths and facts about hypersensitivity

Jimmy Bordarie
Jimmy Bordarie
Lecturer in Social Psychology at Université de Tours
Colette Aguerre
Colette Aguerre
Lecturer in Clinical Psychopathology at Université Tours
Key takeaways
  • According to studies, hypersensitivity affects 15-30% of the population.
  • Aron and Aron’s ‘sensory processing sensitivity’ model characterises this disorder as easy arousal, a low sensory threshold and aesthetic sensitivity.
  • The effects of hypersensitivity may vary depending on the individual, his or her past experiences and ability to manage emotions, or the context.
  • The supposed increase in cases is thought to be the result of greater recognition of the phenomenon and changes in attitudes towards emotions.
  • Hypersensitivity is neither an illness nor a defect, but rather a personality trait that needs to be understood and harnessed to become a strength.

Hypersensitive people cry all the time – FALSE

Hyper­sen­si­tiv­i­ty is a phe­nom­e­non that attracts a great deal of inter­est these days and is the sub­ject of many over­sim­pli­fi­ca­tions and clichés. In real­i­ty, it is a com­plex con­cept and the sub­ject of numer­ous sol­id sci­en­tif­ic stud­ies. They are based on sev­er­al mod­els to explain hyper­sen­si­tiv­i­ty and the def­i­n­i­tions that fol­low from them. Among the most wide­ly used is the ‘sen­so­ry pro­cess­ing sen­si­tiv­i­ty’ mod­el of Aron and Aron (1997). Accord­ing to this, hyper­sen­si­tive peo­ple are char­ac­terised by a ten­den­cy to be more sen­si­tive to inter­nal and envi­ron­men­tal stim­uli. They also express greater emo­tion­al reac­tiv­i­ty, both neg­a­tive and positive.

In oth­er words, high emo­tion­al­i­ty is only a small part of hyper­sen­si­tiv­i­ty. Instead, hyper­sen­si­tiv­i­ty has three facets:

  1. Ease of arousal: a ten­den­cy to react intense­ly to inter­nal and exter­nal stimuli
  2. A low sen­so­ry thresh­old: increased sen­si­tiv­i­ty to sub­tle stim­uli (inter­nal and external)
  3. Aes­thet­ic sen­si­tiv­i­ty: high recep­tiv­i­ty to aes­thet­ic man­i­fes­ta­tions and the reac­tions they provoke.

How­ev­er, our work has led us to con­sid­er a fourth com­po­nent: the avoid­ance of dis­rup­tive stim­uli, i.e. a ten­den­cy to try to con­trol them in order to pro­tect one­self from them.

Hypersensitivity can have both positive and negative effects – TRUE

In the media, hyper­sen­si­tiv­i­ty is some­times por­trayed as a hand­i­cap, some­times as a ‘super­pow­er’. In real­i­ty, although the effects of hyper­sen­si­tiv­i­ty most often appear to be neg­a­tive, the impact on the indi­vid­ual varies.

Aron and Aron’s mod­el pro­pos­es a clas­si­fi­ca­tion into two cat­e­gories. On the one hand, there are those who have had a hap­py child­hood, who are less intro­vert­ed, emo­tion­al and prone to depres­sion than the sec­ond cat­e­go­ry, and for whom hyper­sen­si­tiv­i­ty appears to be less of a prob­lem. On the oth­er hand, those who had a dif­fi­cult child­hood were more like­ly to devel­op anx­i­ety, par­tic­u­lar­ly social anxiety.

In addi­tion, our work could lead us to pro­pose anoth­er clas­si­fi­ca­tion, with­out con­tra­dict­ing the pre­vi­ous one, still in two pro­files. The first would be the most com­mon, the ‘vul­ner­a­ble’ hyper­sen­si­tive, for whom hyper­sen­si­tiv­i­ty would be a fac­tor in emo­tion­al fragili­ty. On the oth­er hand, for the sec­ond pro­file, the ‘aes­thet­ic’ hyper­sen­si­tive, hyper­sen­si­tiv­i­ty could play a pro­tec­tive role in cer­tain sit­u­a­tions, and be psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly re-energising.

There are as many hypersensitivities as there are hypersensitive people – TRUE

These clas­si­fi­ca­tions do not mean that indi­vid­u­als belong to fixed cat­e­gories. In fact, hyper­sen­si­tiv­i­ty is part­ly innate, with genet­ic and neu­ro­bi­o­log­i­cal pre­dis­po­si­tions, but it also requires an acti­vat­ing con­text, i.e. an envi­ron­ment that awak­ens this poten­tial. How­ev­er, each indi­vid­ual reacts dif­fer­ent­ly to a giv­en sit­u­a­tion. And the same per­son can react dif­fer­ent­ly to the same event, depend­ing on the moment and the con­text. So everyone’s rela­tion­ship to hyper­sen­si­tiv­i­ty depends on a mul­ti­tude of factors.

What’s more, it would be prefer­able to speak of ‘high sen­si­tiv­i­ty’, as in Eng­lish or Span­ish, rather than ‘hyper­sen­si­tiv­i­ty’. This would bet­ter reflect where an indi­vid­ual falls on the sen­si­tiv­i­ty continuum.

Hypersensitivity is a weakness – FALSE

In Aron and Aron’s mod­el, hyper­sen­si­tiv­i­ty is a char­ac­ter trait, i.e. a con­sis­tent indi­vid­ual dif­fer­ence that appears from birth, based on genet­ic and neu­ro­bi­o­log­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions. It’s not a dis­ad­van­tage, just a par­tic­u­lar way of func­tion­ing that one must learn to cope with. Accord­ing to stud­ies, it affects 15- 30% of the population.

In fact, it’s not even nec­es­sary to detect hyper­sen­si­tiv­i­ty, as long as it doesn’t cause dis­com­fort. If it does, then there are sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly val­i­dat­ed tools, such as the Aron and Aron scale, in the form of a ques­tion­naire avail­able in sev­er­al languages.

How­ev­er, the ques­tion should nev­er be reduced to “Am I hyper­sen­si­tive?” Instead, the aim should be to take a glob­al approach, to iden­ti­fy the psy­cho­log­i­cal and rela­tion­al dif­fi­cul­ties that peo­ple encounter in their lives, and to see how hyper­sen­si­tiv­i­ty may or may not play a role.

Hypersensitivity mainly affects women – FALSE

There is no sci­en­tif­ic evi­dence to sug­gest that women are more hyper­sen­si­tive than men. The pro­por­tions are gen­er­al­ly sim­i­lar between the two gen­ders. On the oth­er hand, there are more intro­verts among hyper­sen­si­tive peo­ple. But this is not a speci­fici­ty either since it con­cerns around 30% of extroverts.

There are more hypersensitive people than before – UNCERTAIN

It is impos­si­ble to com­pare the num­ber of hyper­sen­si­tive peo­ple over time, sim­ply because the con­cept is still fair­ly recent. So how can we esti­mate the pro­por­tion of peo­ple affect­ed at a time when hyper­sen­si­tiv­i­ty had not yet been defined? That’s not to say that there weren’t hyper­sen­si­tive peo­ple in the past, but they weren’t recog­nised as such.

How­ev­er, this sup­posed increase can be explained by the recent media cov­er­age of the term. Many peo­ple can recog­nise them­selves in approx­i­mate descrip­tions and describe them­selves as hyper­sen­si­tive. But how many of them con­firm this intu­ition with a valid test? It’s hard to know.

But per­haps we are also wit­ness­ing a gen­er­a­tional trend. As edu­ca­tion­al prin­ci­ples have changed, con­sid­er­a­tion and man­age­ment of emo­tions may have evolved, there­by favour­ing hyper­sen­si­tiv­i­ty. But as far as we know, this has not been con­firmed by any studies.

The brains of hypersensitive people are different from those of the rest of the population – FALSE

The brain of a hyper­sen­si­tive per­son is the same as that of any oth­er indi­vid­ual. Its struc­ture, in par­tic­u­lar its cen­tral ner­vous sys­tem, shows no notable dif­fer­ence. How­ev­er, it func­tions dif­fer­ent­ly: it does not react in the same way to dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tions, cer­tain areas of the brain are more acti­vat­ed than oth­ers… To draw a par­al­lel, most peo­ple have two arms. Although they are struc­tural­ly iden­ti­cal, each indi­vid­ual does not use them in the same way, whether vol­un­tar­i­ly or not.

Hypersensitivity is an illness that can be cured – FALSE

Hyper­sen­si­tiv­i­ty is nei­ther an ill­ness nor a dis­or­der. Con­se­quent­ly, it can­not be ‘diag­nosed’, let alone ‘treat­ed’ or ‘cured’. More­over, it is not includ­ed in the DSM (Diag­nos­tic and Sta­tis­ti­cal Man­u­al of Men­tal Dis­or­ders), which lists men­tal and psy­chi­atric disorders.

How­ev­er, in some cas­es it can lead to emo­tion­al dis­or­ders. Ini­tial­ly, the idea is to become aware of this speci­fici­ty and gain a bet­ter under­stand­ing of our own func­tion­ing. The next step is to find the tools to man­age it more effec­tive­ly, for exam­ple through psy­chother­a­py. The aim is to turn hyper­sen­si­tiv­i­ty into a resource rather than a constraint.

How­ev­er, it is impor­tant to bear in mind that there is cur­rent­ly no uni­ver­sal, sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly proven method for trans­form­ing hyper­sen­si­tiv­i­ty into a strength. But this is one of the areas in which we are look­ing to apply our research.

Bastien Contreras

Our world explained with science. Every week, in your inbox.

Get the newsletter